Beloved in the Lord,
The Parable of the Lost Son in today’s Gospel describes in vivid language the two kinds of people that Christ encountered during his earthly ministry. On the one hand, you had those Gentiles and “sinners” that found favor in the eyes of Jesus. These were the tax collectors and adulterers and murderers who came to Christ seeking mercy. Like the Lost Son in the Parable, they had strayed far from their father’s house. By their sins they had wasted their Father’s inheritance. They didn’t have any illusions about their own holiness. They knew that they were anything but holy. They didn’t try to cover it up. And like this Lost Son, they returned in repentance to Christ and found not a stern judge, but a loving and merciful Savior.
On the other hand, you had those stern and self-righteous Pharisees. They despised Christ for welcoming such sinful people and for keeping company with them. “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” Like the older brother in the Parable, they stood in the doorway of the Kingdom and refused to go in out of contempt for the rebellious sinners. “We have served you our entire lives,” they complained, “and have never broken any of your commandments. And yet here you keep company not with us, but with these swine.” They were jealous because Christ didn’t seem to want to acknowledge their service or how they had borne the burden of the Law. “We have done all things well, but you treat us as if we were of no importance to you.”
Christ was like the father in the parable, who was so overjoyed to see his son returning that he threw a huge party in his honor. In the same way, says Christ, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. “It was right to celebrate,” said the father, “for this my son was lost and is found; he was dead and is alive.” Truly the sinners and tax collectors who ate and drank with Christ were dead in their trespasses and sins, even as we are. They were like lost sheep who had wandered from their Shepherd. But now they had returned. They had been found. They had been made alive again by Christ. And that was reason enough to celebrate. “Bring out the choicest wines and kill the fatted calf! For this my son was lost and is found; he was dead and is alive!” Like this father, it pleased Christ to celebrate with those who had turned from their evil ways and returned in faith to Him.
Was this kind of honor deserved? Certainly not. That’s why it is called “grace.” Surely the boy’s father had every right to say, “No way! You can go right back to the swine pits for all I care. You are dead to me!” And yet his father was willing to overlook all of this. He loved this son, and forgave him for his wild and reckless living. Likewise, it is certainly true that Christ of all people would have every right and reason to turn these sinners away. Surely He had the right to say: “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness! How dare you come to me and look for mercy. You deserve nothing but punishment.” And yet, in the cross, Christ gives over his very life for these and all sinners. Out of his great love for His Father and for us, Christ hands himself over to the Jews and allows himself to be tortured and put to death. He allows himself to be abused by those and for those who deserved nothing but death themselves.
The same could be said for us when we sin and go astray from God’s Word. Surely Christ has just cause to turn us away and send us to the devil and hell for our sins, for all the times that we have wasted our Father’s goods. And yet He shows us mercy when we return to him. He does not deal with us as our sins deserve, but according to his mercy. Consider how we stray from him every week in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Consider how we murder our neighbor in our hearts or by our unkind and hurtful words. Consider how we adulterate the covenant of marriage by our wandering eyes and our unclean hearts and minds. Consider how mistreat our parents and spouses and children. Consider how we fail to love God with our whole heart, or to trust in him at all times.
And yet we come here each week, hopefully in sorrow and contrition, confessing our sins: “We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean, that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Like the lost son, we say: “I am not worthy to be called your son.” We long for grace. And what does Christ say in return? “I forgive you.” I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And there is joy in heaven.
A feast is prepared in our honor. The fatted calf is killed, that is, Christ is sacrificed for us, and we are invited to dine with him at His holy table. His holy Body and His precious Blood are given to us Christians to eat and to drink. A robe is placed on us, and we stand as redeemed, restored, and forgiven children of our heavenly Father. The parable of the Lost Son happens every week in the Divine Service. It repeats itself whenever Christians who have wandered from Christ come in faith to receive his good gifts.
So we have in this parable today a beautiful picture of the grace and mercy that Christ shows to those who repent of their sins and look in faith to Him. We see how much it delights our Lord when sinners come to Him for forgiveness. All of heaven celebrates and rejoices whenever just one sinner repents. And so should we. So should the Church. “Bring out the choicest wine! Kill the fatted calf!” This is what the Church’s attitude should be whenever someone who was living contrary to God’s Word turns and is converted once again to faith in Christ. When someone has strayed far from the Church, and after coming to a due sense of error returns in faith to Christ, we should not hesitate to rejoice and make merry, for “this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.”
And yet we see in this parable how displeasing it is to many in the church when such favor and honor is bestowed on one who, in their eyes, is much less deserving than they. “After all,” they reason, “I have been in this church all my life. See how faithfully I have served and loved you? And yet when was there ever any such party thrown in my honor? Why show such honor to one who has despised God so much?” And to these Christ says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was right to make merry and be glad; for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
There is no sin in such joy. In fact, quite the opposite is true. St. Paul reminds us today that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Thus, writes the Apostle, “we regard no one according to the flesh.” In other words, we look at our brothers and sisters in Christ who in sorrow and repentance have returned to faith in Christ not as they were before, but as they are now in Christ. All things are made new in Christ. All sins have been forgiven in his death. Even death itself has passed away. For God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
For this reason, says Paul, we are to look at each other as fellow baptized sons and daughters of God. When we regard each other in this way, we cannot long be angry. Whenever you are tempted to think so highly of yourself that you cannot be happy for your brother who repents, remember that you too were once in darkness. You too were once dead in trespasses and sins. You too were lost. But in Christ you were found. In Christ you have been made alive. God made Christ to be your sin, and your brother’s sin, and in Him God’s anger towards our sin has been turned away. God grant us repentant hearts, and hearts that rejoice with heavenly joy over one sinner who repents. Amen.